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How Therapy Transformed My Recovery

woman and therapist discuss how therapy can transform recoveryI have gotten more out of the last six months of therapy than I got from five years in 12-step fellowships. That sounds crazy, but it’s true. I feared that leaving the 12-step community would lead to a downward spiral, that eventually I would return to use — or at least that’s what I was conditioned to believe would happen if I left. It couldn’t have been further from the truth. Therapy, not the meetings, transformed me and my recovery in so many ways. In fact, I can’t believe I survived so long without it.

Earlier this year, suffering from complete burnout, I stumbled into therapy on the recommendation of my doctor. It’s no surprise I was feeling burnt out, having moved to America a year earlier with just two suitcases and a dream. I had severely underestimated the reality of adjusting to a new culture, building a new life, and the effort required to develop a successful business. I guess if I’d really grasped the enormity of that undertaking, I’d probably still be in England, stuck in a job I hated and living a life that didn’t match my dreams. It probably goes without saying that I needed help adjusting.

For the first time, I’ve found a therapist I truly click with. She is the first therapist who not only understands how my brain and emotions operate, but is able to communicate with me in a way that I appreciate. I actually look forward to seeing her — this wasn’t the case with othrer therapists I’ve seen — and I feel energized afterwards.

These have been the greatest developments:

• I discovered the root of my addiction. While I don’t doubt that genetic and environmental factors contributed to my early use of drugs, it is now clear that there was more at play. It became abundantly clear to my therapist after just a few weeks of discussing my history that I had a huge amount of unresolved trauma and repressed emotion that meant I met the criteria for Complex PTSD.

Throughout my recovery, I was told that it was pointless to address the past and that I should instead focus on the present and the future. Unfortunately, the body tells a different story. There is a wealth of evidence showing that if we don’t process childhood (or any other) trauma, we can suffer disease, chronic illness, and emotional repression later in life. That was the case for me: the slightest event would cause complete dysregulation in my body, I lacked a feeling of safety and protection for as long as I can remember, and I struggled to process stress effectively both physiologically and emotionally. Therapy has helped me recover the ability to self-regulate, process, and heal in a way I have never before achieved.

• I learned to trust myself again. Coming from a 12-step background — believing that we cannot trust our thinking, and that we have an addictive monster living inside of us that could strike at any time — I had a really hard time learning to trust myself and my decisions. Therapy gave me a safe space to discuss my thought processes, and the agency to realize that I could trust myself.

• I stopped looking at myself as defective. Letting go of the character-defect lens has been the most revolutionary aspect of my recovery. I instead see myself as a fallible human — just like anybody else. By living an authentic life in recovery, I know that I’m doing the best I can. That’s the best any human can ask for.

• I have improved my relationships. Therapy taught me how to be more effective in setting and maintaining boundaries in order to protect my well-being, and how to let go of relationships that were harming me. That includes the relationship I have with myself and the boundaries I set around work.

• I learned how to have fun. My whole concept of fun was drastically undeveloped when I started therapy. I’d mistaken self-care and professional satisfaction as enjoyment. Therapy gave me the freedom to pursue activities with the sole purpose of having fun. And now? I have way more fun.

• I developed a stronger sense of self. When you recover in a community that has pretty standard language and activities, you tend to operate within those confines. Recovering outside of the 12-step paradigm gave me a stronger sense of myself, my beliefs and my core values.

• I have a safe space to process. Unlike peer-based recovery, professional therapy is a space just for me to offload and process my feelings and emotions. I can seek sound, evidence-based support and advice that helps me immeasurably.

For me, counseling is like physical therapy for the brain. It has become foundational to my recovery. I can’t imagine a life without it.


Located in Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is an experienced writer, journalist, and coach. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to helping people flourish in their recovery. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts and addiction recovery websites, including The Fix, STAT News, Recovery.org, Workit Health, and Ravishly. Liv was recently featured in VICE .

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